Rewind to last week. Like many who are reading this editorial, I sat watching the election results emerge over several days, all the while caught in an existential anxiety that gripped my attention and pulled me away from all of the meaningful, valued ways that I typically attempt to engage in life.
My eyes were bloodshot. Deep, dark circles were forming, a sign that I hadn’t slept well (and that I’m nearing my 30’s). I kept thinking, over and over, “Give me space to cope or the circuits in my brain are going to fry from sleep deprivation and anxiety.”
I tried my best to ignore the anxiety by:
- completing two paintings with the help of Bob Ross videos
- returning to my breath during Yoga with Adriene
- baking 24 chocolate chip cookies
- hiking with my Aussie at a local park
Still, I wasn’t coping well.
- I lost sleep while hitting refresh on the Associated Press’ polling results
- I kept several tabs open on both my laptop and phone with websites predicting what was going to happen
- I ate 24 chocolate chip cookies
- I ruminated about the future of our country
I had transformed into the epitome of a distracted person. Some might say that I was a bit obsessive, or entirely so, but who wouldn’t be preoccupied with an election?
It was two days into election week when I recognized that how I was coping with the results reflected how I’ve coped for most of 2020, or rather, how I haven’t coped. I was living in a state of paralyzing anxiousness as I reached desperately for some semblance of control. As I reflected, the word, ‘paralyzing’ struck me hard. It reminded me of a TED Talk given by Dr. Steven Hayes where he disclosed his own experience of paralyzing anxiety.
Inside of my own personal lightbulb moment, I was provided the opportunity to step back and reflect on what my training in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) has taught me about not only why anxiety had been plaguing me for most of 2020, but also how to cope with it in a more functional way. ACT therapists tell us that suffering is caused by psychological inflexibility:
- avoiding our emotions (experiential avoidance), spending our time fantasizing about the future or past
- getting entangled with our own cognitive experiences and language (fusion)
- seeing ourselves as the content of our thoughts
- operating on reactions as opposed to values.
For most of 2020 I’ve found myself fused with hopeless thoughts, trying to run, hide and fight with my emotional experience, daydreaming of a vaccine and the dismantling of white supremacist systems, and struggling to adapt and engage in the meaningful work that I am passionate about. These ways of being were no longer working for a myriad of reasons, and as the state of the world seemed to worsen, my inability to nurture my community only perpetuated the anxiety I was experiencing.
I suddenly felt a slight amount of relief from this insight; the world would keep spinning, and I would continue to have opportunities to use my inner world to nurture the community around me. But first, I need to cope in a more psychologically flexible way with the world as it is. And so emerged a mantra of acceptance and a compassionate promise to myself:
The hopelessness I feel is not the core of who I am. The anxiety is real, but when it says the problem is too big, it isn’t being honest. I can act on my values of community, empathy, and love amidst the fear and hatred around me. Healing the overwhelming hurt is a process and, though the forecast appears bleak, the present is the only truth I have. The healing I provide to others and myself in this present moment can change that future. My compass knows true North and as long as I follow my guide, though I will not reach some destination, I will have already arrived.
Perhaps my experience can serve to remind other counseling psychology folx of the training we receive and of how we can apply it to our own lives (so we don’t all end up looking like raccoons at 3:00a.m. on election night).
ACT is one way that I’ve shifted my perspective and taken a new approach to life as we meander like grinding gears and nails on chalkboards toward 2021. For you it may be person-centered, emotion-focused, DBT, CBT, trauma-informed, psychodynamic, TLDP or any of a hundred other modalities. Whatever it is, I hope you pause in this moment and reflect. I hope you allow your way of conceptualizing to remind you of why it is you do this all-important work and how this all-important work can give back to your own healing. Afterall, we are each driven by that same love. To be open. To be present. To act on what matters.
Author Bio: Christopher Anders, M.A. (he/him/his) is a graduate student in the Department of Psychological and Quantitative Foundations at the University of Iowa. His primary research interests include multicultural processes in psychotherapy, gender and sexuality, and increasing access to mental health care for underserved communities. In his free time, he writes and performs music, paints, bakes and is currently attempting to keep several plants alive in his apartment. You can contact him at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or find his Bob Ross attempts on his Instagram @thebobrossexperiment.